Student of Italy
Samantha Anderson is a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas planning on majoring in Biology in the Pre-Med program and is considering minoring in Chemistry and Theology. Her previous international experience includes being a tourist in Jamaica and a missionary in Guatemala.
It must be impossible for any prospective college student to not be familiar with the term “study abroad.” Every college pamphlet they receive has a bolded bullet point somewhere on it that brags, “One of the top ranked schools in the nation for study abroad experiences!” Once they get on campus, every activities fair has a booth teeming with counselors and older students trying to sell every passerby on a study abroad program that they won’t be eligible to apply for for at least a year or two. The fliers they hand out may get put in a stack of similar fliers of things-that-would-be-worthwhile-to-look-more-into-but-not-right-now-because-there’s-so-many-other-more-pressing-issues-and-Netflix. Eventually the stack gets uncovered weeks or months later and thrown away. A very small portion of students will actually keep those fliers and make use of them. These students go study in another country for a couple months and post a lot on social media about how much fun they’re having and how eye opening its been and how by the time they left they felt like true locals and et cetera et cetera.
When most people hear “study abroad,” they probably have a non-stop flood of these social media posts come to mind of what their peers got to do on their several month-long vacation to another country. However, that small portion of students who did study abroad have different images come to mind. They think of that time they stuck out like a sore thumb when they wore a t-shirt and joggers while everyone else they passed on the street sported sundresses and suits. They think of the time they got horribly terribly lost when they took the 87 bus going the wrong direction but didn’t want to waste their international data looking up how to get home. They think of the countless awkward moments of trying to answer a question to an Italian speaker when the only thing they could remember how to say was, “non lo so.” “I don’t know.” They remember how much of an outsider they were for many long weeks until they finally found out how to balance their American ideals of individuality with the conventions of the new culture they found themselves in. “Study abroad” conjures images of smiling college students riding camels through a desert. “Student abroad” conjures images of a broke, tired, confused young adult trying to figure out who they are in an unfamiliar world.
As a student abroad in Rome, it’s so tempting to simply be a tourist or a traveler rather than a student. Students abroad have much more responsibility to be a student of the country and of the culture than tourists or travelers do. In addition to having to take 18 credit hours’ worth of classes in a shorter span of time than a semester back home, we also have the responsibility of trying to comprehend what’s occurring around us here in Italy, why it’s happening, and the role we should play in it. Yes, we undeniably have the opportunity to make unforgettable memories, but we also have to put in a significant amount of work every day. In just under two weeks we’ve already had ample opportunity to see the Colosseum, the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica, and other sites in Rome that most only get to see pictures of in history textbooks. However, I have also spent multiple nights during just these first few days of class staying up late to draw out Organic Chemistry resonance structures and write this very post for English. I’ve also been challenged over and over again to think about who I am as a student abroad in Italy. I’m here to be a student of Italy but I’ve been feeling like a tourist everywhere I go. However, different experiences have been making me think more about the growth and change I want to see in myself, not just to fit into this culture but also to keep with me when I return to school in Minnesota and beyond.
A statement from writer James Baldwin quoted in Suzy Hansen’s “Unlearning the Myth of American Innocence” especially made me think; he wrote “I have always been struck in America by an emotional poverty so bottomless and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable organic connection between his public stance and his private life.” In America, we have a problem with letting our personal values drive our everyday actions. It’s so much easier to just go with the flow of what everyone else is doing. I value time for quiet self-reflection but if I’m eating alone at lunch in the cafeteria I’d better be going through social media on my phone otherwise I’d be labeled as a loner and a loser. Here in Italy, we don’t have that liberty. When I’m out eating lunch downtown I don’t have any data to do anything on my phone. I don’t have the time in my schedule to force fake conversations in order to pretend that I’m more popular than I actually am. Plus, I’m pretty sure that if I don’t let myself process everything going on around me I’ll literally go crazy. Here in Italy, I’m forced to change my public stance, and in the process I may just allow my private life and values to shine through more. Here in Italy, in order for me to try to fit into the culture I have to consider other people’s private lives and values and see if I can empathize with them. This semester here in Italy, I’m planning that in addition to studying Organic Chemistry and the Italian history around me, I’m also going to allow myself to just sit quietly and think about how to align my everyday actions with the values others around me have and with the values I have rooted deep down inside me.